Everyone knows about the French Foreign Legion. Mostly, though, our knowledge ranges from impressionistic to false, derived largely from movies and with an overlay of the kneejerk odium that attends colonialism. At The Edge of the World: The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion corrects that lack of knowledge—it gives an excellent overview, both factually and, as it were, spiritually, of the Legion in its heyday, along with some oblique perspectives on the positive and negative aspects of colonialism.
Jean-Vincent Blanchard’s history is basically chronological, and focuses on the actual bayonet-level actions of the Legion, rather than on the details of its formation or its political oversight by the French government. The pivot around which this book turns, so much so that it is nearly his biography, is Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey (1854 – 1934), who fought with and led the Legion in Indochina, Madagascar, Algeria, and Morocco, and served as the first Resident-General in Morocco from 1912 to 1925. His career spanned the “heroic century” of this book’s subtitle, from the founding of the Legion in 1831 until its centenary in 1931.
Of course, that “heroic century” was also the century of colonialism. The French political approach to colonization was frequently that of the “oil slick”—with the help of the Legion, more and more of a given colony would accept French rule, as well as French civilization, spreading out like oil on the surface of water. For many reasons, this strategy was mostly a failure, and thus the Legion in all the colonies spent more time fighting and less time civilizing (not that the two cannot often be the same thing). In many ways, therefore, this is a chronicle of ultimate failure through the prism of a small group of men bound together by their fighting unit and its principles, and not much else.
The Legion was therefore nearly necessarily composed of a particular brand of men, who sought to “find redemption and an existential purpose through camaraderie and abnegation.” (And they were all men, of course, in those days before ideology trumped common sense.) Really, the Legion was a Christian military order without the Christianity. Blanchard quotes another scholar as describing the Legion as “a ‘monastery of action’ that one joined as others chose to become Carthusian monks.” The Carthusians, of course, were and are a particularly ascetic and disciplined order (whether today’s Legion is like this I don’t know and the book does not address). This rigid approach to Legionary life was very much not without its costs—a running theme in the book is the constant lurking of “le cafard” (“the cockroach”), a particularly aggressive and pernicious combination of boredom and depression, described as “an irresistible pull toward nothingness,” that even frequently affected Lyautey. Doubtless the type of man who ended up in the Legion often tended to be the kind who turns in on himself whenever he is at loose ends—which is, I imagine, why Legionnaires enjoyed a reputation for both seeking battle, and for seeking strong drink and brawls when on leave.
Lyautey first spent time in Vietnam, in the 1890s, where the problem was not just nationalist/royalist resistance to French overlordship, but also warlords, rebels from China (the Black Flags), along with general anarchy and unrest, all of which made expanding railroads and other indicia of civilization extremely difficult. Lyautey, like most of the French, in his own mind focused more on the benefits France was bringing and less on the concurrent exploitation, such as through harsh labor conditions on French-run rubber plantations. As did the British, he thought “colonial war represented a new kind of war, ‘a life-creating’ war, as opposed to the destructive conflicts that consumed Europe.” To us, the idea of “life-creating” war seems fantastical, but certainly relative to the anarchy, slavery and general bad behavior that characterized many, if not all, areas subject to colonization prior to colonization, and the substantial and lasting improvements generally wrought by lengthy colonization, maybe it’s not completely irrational. Nonetheless, while in many ways Lyautey seems admirable, his certainty of the righteousness of his cause, after the 20th Century and horrors such as the Belgian Congo, is somewhat jarring.
Lyautey next spent three years fighting on Madagascar. I didn’t even know Madagascar was a French colony, probably because the only thing I associate with Madagascar is lemurs. Apparently, as with Indochina, it was an unpleasant endless round of tropical fighting—though the French permanently abolished slavery as soon as they took control, freeing 500,000 slaves and showing another frequent benefit of colonization, the ending of slavery that was not going to be ended without Western rule.
The rest of the book is taken up with Algeria and Morocco, regarded as the core of Legion history and the major part of the Legion’s soul. From here come the images we are familiar with from the movies: the lone Legionnaire in his white hat staring out over the endless sand dunes under a blue sky (never mind that most of the desert in those areas is gravel). The French had been active and dominant in Algeria since the mid-18th Century, gradually expanding westward toward independent (but partially Spanish-dominated) Morocco. In 1907 the French took advantage of anti-French riots (which mostly “targeted the [local, non-French] Jews, plundering and destroying their stores and houses, raping and killing”) to cement their hold, and came to an accommodation with the Spanish.
The book follows the gradual French pacification (or subjugation) of Morocco, including the brutal, on both sides, Rif War. It does not cover later years, with the slow, then chaotic, retreat from Morocco and Algeria, the consequent turmoil in France, and the effects even today on France, although Blanchard’s Afterword does mention that Jean-Marie Le Pen was a Legionnaire, as are some prominent voices in the fight against the Islamization of France. Such a political approach seems in some ways tied to the Legion’s core spirit; Lyautey “lamented the consolidation of the French Third Republic [from 1870 to 1940] and its low expectations, in the name of social justice, of what men could accomplish. ‘I feel utterly incompatible with egalitarian and collectivist society.’” The Legion today is much smaller, in part because of its role in the post-Algeria rebellion against de Gaulle, but it is still used by the French government in a variety of missions, supporting France’s reduced role on the world stage. But no doubt the traditional Legionnaire would, and perhaps the modern Legionnaire does, feel ill at ease in today’s degenerate and senescent Europe.